Product review: New wave of wireless gadgets

A new generation of wireless products may finally deliver what vendors have long promised -- a pocket-size device that lets you easily retrieve e-mail and view Web data from anywhere. We tested shipping models of the best miniature units to date: 3Com's Palm VII, which is the latest iteration of the popular Palm organiser; and BlackBerry, a souped-up alpha-numeric pager from Research In Motion. The products improve hugely on their predecessors.

But these gadgets are not yet ready to join the cell phone as ubiquitous business tools. Their e-mail and Web access features are usable but limited, their wireless coverage is spotty outside major cities, and associated service charges are steep. Cell-phone jockeys may want to hold out for one of the new and improved Internet-enabled phones expected to ship later this year.

The $599 Palm VII is already available in the New York area and due for national rollout later in the year. Like earlier Palm units, the Palm VII is a well-designed pocket organiser with pen input, a calendar, an address book, and other PIM features, plus slick data synchronisation with a desktop computer. But this Palm also has a radio modem and pop-up antenna. Step through a quick sign-up wizard for 3Com's Palm.Net Internet service, designed for this device, and you're ready for unplugged e-mail and Web access.

These features, however, scarcely resemble those of their PC counterparts. Though the VII's IMessenger e-mail handles short messages well, it works only with your Palm.Net account, not with corporate or ISP e-mail. You must download incoming messages exceeding 500 characters (roughly 75 words) in chunks, and IMessenger doesn't handle file attachments at all. The 11-line screen can display 40 to 50 words of a message.

Another limitation: You cannot browse the Web at large. Instead, 3Com has partnered with dozens of big Web brand names such as ABC News, the Wall Street Journal, and Yahoo to provide bite-size chunks of information tailored to the Palm VII's small screen and its slow (8-kilobits-per-second) wireless connection. News, stock quotes, and travel information are all available now, with more content on the way. The initial services are handy but basic.

Like its Palm ancestors, the VII is elegant, innovative, and useful. But at $US599, it costs nearly twice as much as the more mundane Palm IIIx.

The standard $10 monthly plan gets you 50KB of transmissions (approximately 150 screens' worth of e-mail or Web content). 3Com believes that most users will prefer to use the $25 premium monthly service, which covers 150KB (about 450 screens) of data. With either plan, you pay 30 cents per kilobyte once you've exhausted your initial allotment -- a likely eventuality if you become a Palm VII addict.

In tests conducted in the Boston area, we obtained consistently trouble-free connections to the Palm.Net service indoors, outdoors, and in the car. Still, the service doesn't exactly blanket the nation: Although the BellSouth data network it runs on is available in 260 US cities, the strength of the signal varies. If your work takes you far into the bush, you'll probably lose contact, and entire states -- including Alaska, and Montana, and Wyoming -- have no service (see www.palm.net/coverage).

The Palm VII's most intriguing rival at the moment is RIM's BlackBerry, a $399 device that blurs the distinctions between a pager and a PDA. Only slightly chunkier than a typical pager, the BlackBerry offers e-mail and a calendar and address book that synchronise with a desktop PC. The device is designed to work with your e-mail account on a Microsoft Exchange e-mail system -- period. It doesn't work with Lotus Notes or ISP-based POP3 e-mail. For $40 a month, you get unlimited wireless e-mail on the same BellSouth network the Palm VII uses, but this price doesn't include Web access. We tested the BlackBerry on Go.Web, a third-party service that provides unlimited news, weather, driving directions, and other services for $10 per month.

The RIM BlackBerry's tiny QWERTY keyboard works well for short messages (you type with your thumbs). Because it's a pager at heart, the device can beep or vibrate when new e-mail arrives. In contrast, the Palm makes you download e-mail manually.

But the BlackBerry doesn't handle lengthy e-mail any better than the Palm VII -- its smaller screen transforms even medium-length messages into marathon scrolling exercises. And though the unit lets you send and receive e-mail through your Exchange account, there is a complication: Unless your company buys and installs RIM's server-side software (prices start at $2999), you must leave your PC running with RIM's e-mail redirection utility at all times to send and receive e-mail on the BlackBerry. Even if you don't see that as a security risk, a system crash could lock the BlackBerry out of your in-box.

So which wireless device should you choose? Go with the gadget you know. If you currently use a Palm product, consider the Palm VII. If you like your pager, pick the BlackBerry. If you can't live without your phone, hold out for a smart phone. Although no single device will always satisfy everybody, these new products go a long way toward making the promise of wireless computing a reality.

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